Keeping Dogs Off The Phobia List After A Bad Experience
March 10, 2011 10:52 AM   Subscribe

A dog bit our son. How do we keep this one bad experience from turning into a lifelong fear of dogs?

Last night, our 6-year-old son was selling candy door-to-door with his mother and younger brother. At one house, the dog owner answered the door, and while they were talking, one of their dogs ran out of the house, growled, and jumped on our son, who sustained a very minor injury.

I don't want this to blow up into a Dog Argument. Therefore, I'm going to elide the details. It's sufficient to say that the owners behaved about as well as they could have, our son has had all the necessary medical treatment (at Urgent Care), and we don't think this needs to become a lawsuit or police case.

Here's the real issue: we don't want our son to be afraid of dogs forever. Based on personal experience, we're keenly aware that an experience like this can create a lifelong phobia.

How can we keep that from happening? I'm particularly interested in practical experience from parents (or kids).
posted by scrump to Human Relations (36 answers total)
I think positive experiences with dogs will help, the sooner the better. And maybe some lessons about how to approach a dog, and when and how to interact. Just overwrite the negative lesson with positive ones.

I had some bad experiences with dogs several times as a young child. I spent a few months wary of dogs after the worst one, but my parents continued to expose me to well-behaved dogs and I'm a dog owner now.
posted by pajamazon at 11:02 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't make a big deal about it. Take him out to the dog park, preferably today and have him interact with some of the more tame dogs (not necessarily smaller as they are sometimes less well behaved and trained).

Even better, call up a local dog trainer and see if you can have him help out in a class. Positive reinforcement at that age.

Don't bring up the event more than you already have and go on about your business. If he brings it up, use it as a teaching tool- some animals (including people) are unpredictable.
posted by TheBones at 11:02 AM on March 10, 2011

One of my brothers had a grave wound from a German Sheppard at about that age. He won the competition for "most stitches in childhood" with that incident alone. Outpatient care, fortunately, but could have been much more serious.

One thing my parents did not do was make a big deal of it. It was a (severe) childhood injury, not unlike the time I stepped on a rake or my other brother put his head through the screen door. A significant event, but not some special horror, acknowledged but not dwelt upon.

We weren't a dog family as such, but our best friends had several small dogs. My brother was re-habituated to playing with and around "safe" dogs, which I think helped a lot. He was nervous around large dogs after that for several years afterward, but he has no lasting issues as an adult.
posted by bonehead at 11:04 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is he acting afraid of dogs now? At 3 years old, I was bit by a dog and I remember worrying that the dog would be put to sleep! My parents had to reassure me that nothing bad would happen to the dog. I was obsessed with dogs as a kid though.

If your son is acting fearful, can you provide some positive experiences with dogs? Try to have your son meet a dog who is friendly. Model non-fearful behavior towards dogs. I think a lot of times parents are actually more scared than their kids when it comes to things like this. Try not to act fearful when you're around dogs when your son is around. I notice when I'm walking my very well behaved dog (on a leash) that some parents immediately grab their kids and cross the street in terror. It's bizarre and I imagine a lot of those kids grow up to be afraid of dogs.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:05 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The kid will read your body signals and reactions much more than anything you could say so I'd be mindful of that, and be careful how you treat dogs -- if you make a big deal out of every dog you see like "Now, there's another dog, just like the one that bit you! Don't be afraid!" it sends the message to be afraid.

My suggestion would be to treat it lightly--sometimes people and dogs turn out to be jerks but we still hope for the best from the next one we meet, and if he wants to sit on your lap the next time he meets one or whatever I'd make no big deal about that either and just stay open to how it seems like he needs to handle it.

And that's not to say that you're not doing the right thing, being careful of it in your own head, but be careful how you show that on the outside.

Everybody handles life's scary events differently.

How's he handling it so far?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:05 AM on March 10, 2011

I got nipped by one of our neighbor's dogs when I was about seven, and I honestly don't remember it having much of an impact on me. I don't remember what, if anything, my parents did to reinforce "most dogs are okay" -- maybe just teaching me things like how to approach dogs ("if you want to pat a dog, let him sniff your hand first so he knows you're friendly"). But within a year I'd pretty much forgotten about it.

Just the data point that some kids get bit and turn out okay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:06 AM on March 10, 2011

A lot of time spent around a gentle, sweet dog whose behaviors he can get to know and anticipate could help a lot. My mom had a huge phobia of dogs for her whole life - getting really nervous when a dog was in the room, walking way out of the way to avoid a dog on the sidewalk; when I was little my dad brought a Rottweiler adolescent home as a surprise, and my mom hid us and herself behind baby gates all day long in the house, and constantly freaked out, until my dad finally returned the dog.

But then I was a middle-schooler and I campaigned hard for a puppy. For my birthday my mom gave in, and I got the cutest little fuzzball. Within 2 weeks, my mom was teaching the fuzzball tricks. Within a year, the fuzzball weighed 60 lbs and my mom was being willingly dragged down the street by him at a very rapid pace, twice a day. 15 years of feeding, walking, playing, and one day I caught my mom scritching him and telling him, "Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair!" She would take him out as a public display to scare workmen working on the neighbors' houses, since she also has a phobia of unknown workmen.

A few years ago they got a second dog, which now cuddles with my mom for naps. And my mom isn't 100% chilled out around strange dogs, especially large ones running loose outside, but she's a million times better.

So yeah, I think a lot of constant contact with a known, friendly dog will help do the trick.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:08 AM on March 10, 2011

So sorry. This happened to my sister when we were all small -- she tried to pet a German Shepherd that its horrid owner left chained all day. It didn't affect her view of dogs (pro) because we grew up with collies. We always had at least one.

One option if it works for you is to adopt a dog, with your son very involved in the selection process. Otherwise do as others have suggested and make sure your son gets plenty of quality time with nice, friendly dogs.
posted by bearwife at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2011

Yep, I agree with the rest, minimize it, don't make a big deal of it but give him opportunities to experience very well behaved dogs, puppies, etc...

I guess the bottom line is, don't assume it's a problem, and don't make it into a problem.
posted by tomswift at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was about 6, I was walking down my driveway and my neighbor's small but feisty dog grabbed me by my scarf and started shaking me. The scarf tightened around my neck and I was briefly gasping for air. The neighbor saw what happened and ran over to help.

For a little while afterward, I was understandably skittish around dogs in general but particularly that dog. I had to go down my driveway to the bus twice every day and therefore had to walk into the same potential situation twice every day. (I don't remember specifically, but I'm guessing my mom walked me to and from the bus because I was scared.) The fact that the dog didn't bother me again despite walking past him every day helped me put it behind me.

Another thing that helped me get over it was knowing why the dog did what he did. I was petrified at the time, but apparently the dog wanted to play and thought we were playing a fun game. It took a while, but eventually I accepted that he didn't want to hurt me. You've probably already covered with your son that the dog bit you because he was scared and talked through things that dogs can misinterpret and react to inappropriately by biting.

I also had a couple of friends with dogs, and had lots of positive interactions with dogs.

Finally, and not particularly helpfully, the passage of time really helped.
posted by slmorri at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I sustained a facial bite from a family dog when I was in my early teens (dog ended up eventually being put down; sad situation). I'd always been a dog person, but got a little phobic in the decade or so after about snarling, growly dogs generally.

Over time, the phobia's disappeared, but I've realized that my hesitation around mean-looking dogs wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I'll totally snuggle around with dogs I trust, but with strange dogs, I never pet them without asking the owner first. This lets me feel in control of the interaction--as in-control as I can be, at least. Don't act all jumpy or anything, but maybe, if he appears fearful, the next time you encounter a nice-seeming dog just ask the owner, in a cheerful voice, if you can pet the dog and then model positive behavior.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A dog bit our son at about this age. Still has a scar on his chest. He has no dog phobia and would love to get one. We did nothing special to get him over it. Probably just the opposite as my wife and I were traumatized by the event and stopped trusting any dogs...
posted by cosmac at 11:20 AM on March 10, 2011

My son was attacked by a dog that jumped out of the window of a truck. He has scars on the back of his thigh and possibly on his butt (haven't looked since he was little). We were very upset that the owners were pretty unconcerned, as were the police in our town. I think my son learned that irresponsible dog owners may raise unsafe dogs, so you should use caution. This is a valid lesson. We have friends with dogs, and he naturally loves animals, and there was no lasting harm. A year or so after the attack, we got an awesome shelter dog, and he and my son were best buddies.
posted by theora55 at 11:21 AM on March 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers so far!

Some more information would probably be useful: he's been wary of dogs to this point. One of the most frustrating things about this is that we've spent so much time getting him to not be afraid of dogs, and then, blam, this happens. We're worried that this might trigger him, like "SEE I WAS RIGHT DOGS ARE EVIL AAAAAAAAAUGH".

He's handling it well, from all appearances, so I think our reactions will be really important.
posted by scrump at 11:22 AM on March 10, 2011

My family never had furry pets and my dad disliked dogs, so I didn't grow up around them. But when I was around 3 or 4 a friend's German Shephard got cornered and, well, to be blunt...well, let's just say severe facial bite that nearly killed me on one end and nearly blinded me in one eye on the other.

No one made a big deal after I had recovered, my parents never reacted with fear around other dogs or made me feel like I should. I went about my life, being allergic to, but always liking animals. When I was 26 I finally got my first pet - a dog, and now I have another.

So, I think as long as no one make a big deal about it and remains positive and confident in the presence of other dogs, that might help in the long run.
posted by buzzkillington at 11:25 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two anecdotal points for you:

- When I was three-ish, I decided that my grandma's dog needed me to help her eat her food. This was the sweetest, most even-tempered dog under normal circumstances, but apparently the appearance of my face in her dog bowl while she was eating made her really, really mad (uh, duh, three-ish-year-old me). She bit me pretty severely on my chin. My mother made a point of having me spend time around really sweet, docile dogs, gave me some training on what not to do (stick your face in the dog bowl was the #1 no-no), and I've been a lifelong dog lover.

- My son was chased and attacked by a dog while walking home from school (5th grade, age 11). It was very, very traumatic. We slowly re-introduced him to our friends' sweet-tempered dogs (several friends, several dogs) and after some fear responses (sweaty palms, anxiousness) he was able to confront his new-found fear and now he's totally fine around dogs (he's 14 now).

If you have some friends who have kid-friendly dogs, see if you can go over after the dog has had its most intensive exercise of the day, so he/she will be nice and mellow. Spend some time just being around the dog. Hopefully after a lot of doing that, he'll be more comfortable each and every time.
posted by cooker girl at 11:25 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would specifically expose him to other dogs which are similar to the biting dog in size or personality (I mean very energetic dogs if the biting dog was particularly active, not other dogs that bite, obviously). I saw my younger sister get bitten by a black lab, and I am still very wary of them over a decade later, though our family had a dog of our own and I generally loved dogs as a kid. So the more similar the "exposure dog" can be to the biting dog, the more effective that safety exposure might be.
posted by Bebo at 11:28 AM on March 10, 2011

I agree with others about having him spend quality time with calm, well-trained dogs and showing him how to act around them. If possible, make them smaller ones that won't leap up on him or overwhelm him. Meeting lots of nice loving dogs and getting big enough to know that I could overpower most of them helped me get over my phobia.

Something I've noticed is that people tend to be very dismissive or even hostile towards someone with a dog phobia. When I was nipped by a dog as a child, I got yelled at for pushing it away with my foot in self-defense. I avoided being around dogs for a long time because of the uncomfortable social interactions (mockery, offended/embarrassed owners) that resulted, which probably kept me from getting acclimatized to them sooner. It might help to reassure your son that he's not a bad person for being afraid of them and to stick up for himself if he's in an uncomfortable situation.
posted by millions of peaches at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

My parents handled it by buying us a 5 pound puppy. Who grew up into the best mutt ever, and we're all lifelong dog people now as a result. I don't know if this fits your budget or lifestyle, but it was the surest antidote for us.
posted by availablelight at 11:32 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, my uncle (my mother's brother) was bit by a dog once, when he and my mother were children walking down the street.

He has never been afraid of dogs. My mother, on the other hand, is very afraid of dogs. Her theory has always been that my uncle knows getting bit by a dog isn't that bad, but she doesn't know that because it's never happened to her.

Incidentally, I sort of inherited my mother's fear of dogs; I've gotten over that now, but I still don't like them. (I'm more of a cat person. Dogs are too needy!) I'm not sure what this means for you, but it seems like you should make sure to not let your son think he should be afraid of dogs.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:32 AM on March 10, 2011

Good on ya, Scrump, for thinking ahead on this.

Let me give you a little bit of a different perspective. A few years ago, my friends came to visit for a week with their 3 kids in tow. The youngest one was about 7 or 8, and very afraid of dogs. I have a small mutt, so the fact that we were about to spend 24/7 together was going to be a real challenge.

When they first arrived, I had a little talk with the wee one and told him I heard he was a little scared of dogs, but I had a nice dog and I wanted to make sure that we were all going to be okay together. We had a sit down and a real heart to heart talk about what it was that scared him about the dog (the teeth! the jumping up on people! the barking!). Then I gave my own rules - no screaming and running around the house, no touching the dog unless I was there too, no teasing of the dog. The whole time we were talking, I made sure my own dog was lying quietly beside us.

The whole week he was there, I always made sure my dog was on a leash - even indoors - and that he only came near the wee one when both the kid and the dog were in a calm mood. By the second day, I invited the kid to join me on dog walks. A few days later, he asked if he could hold the leash. Later, I asked him if he wanted to see the dog do some tricks, and HE got to reward the dog with little treats. By the end of the week, they were pretty much inseparable.

In short, like others said, the best thing you can do is expose your son to calm, happy dogs, with owners who understand his fears and are willing to share positive experiences. But slowly. And in increments.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

I was "attacked" by a super-over-enthusiastic dog (who was supposed to be on doggie valium) when I was about your son's age, the dog considerably outweighed me, and it was absolutely terrifying. (And this dog just wanted to lick my face off with joy while standing her entire weight on my childish ribcage.) I was afraid of dogs for years.

One thing that helped was walking well-behaved dogs, typically as a dog sitter (as my desire for spending money outweighed my irrational fear). Dogs are FUN to walk because they spend the whole time like "WE'RE WALKING! WE'RE WALKING! OMG WE'RE WALKING!" and it's hard not to enjoy them enjoying the walk. So perhaps a neighbor with a well-behaved dog that your son is strong enough to control (being yanked off his feet is not likely to help with the fear) could "ask him to help out" by giving the dog a walk once or twice a week (with mom or dad along). The exposure and experience with a well-behaved dog would probably help a lot.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:36 AM on March 10, 2011

We occasionally have little kids come into the veterinary hospital where I work to give the sick doggies homemade treats. This might work well with some laid back dogs at the shelter too, although that might be a bit noisy and overwhelming. The activity of making the treats (here's an easy recipe) and some good books about dogs would give lots of opportunities to talk about how great dogs are, even though that one time a dog was very naughty.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:53 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think it's nice that you want to prevent this dog fear. I bet it will be fine after a few months or years either way.

My experience of parenting and helping raise a number of other kids though is that there is not much you can do to control your child's lifelong patterns beyond modeling. Show your child that you enjoy being around dogs. Watch your body language around dogs. Pet them. Smile when you see them. Point out cute puppies. Consider getting a puppy. Beyond that, your kid is going to have the reactions your kid has and some of that is about your kid's essential temperament and is out of your hands.
posted by serazin at 11:53 AM on March 10, 2011

Can you go visit a rescue or a shelter and play with a litter of puppies?
posted by galadriel at 12:53 PM on March 10, 2011

All very good suggestions above, but if he's been wary, you can also give him some good rules to follow so that he can feel like he's got something to do that will help him be more safe under normal circumstances - and that what happened to him was a fluke. Our canine police officers used to come to local events and hand out "Fido - Friend or Foe" colouring books, and bookmarks with safety guidelines on them. Here is a link to PDFs you can print out.

Because it would have helped me not to have a scar under my chin to know when I was that age that passing a hot dog over the head of an under-socialized and untrained German shepherd who was bigger than me wasn't a smart thing to do.
posted by peagood at 1:20 PM on March 10, 2011

Due to being chased and corralled by a big black possibly rabid dog at a young age, I was uncomfortable with dogs until I lived with two small yappy and (overly) friendly lapdogs.
posted by orthogonality at 2:18 PM on March 10, 2011

I had two really bad dog experiences when I was quite young. 1) Our family dog bit me when I was four and had to be put down after he also bit my mother and 2) I was with my mother in a cemetary after hours when we were surrounded by guard dogs dobermans. I love dogs to this day and do not have a phobia. What helped me was being around fun, loving, playful, gentle dogs. I would slowly arrange for some playdates with friendly, loving frisbee chasing dogs. That's what did it for me.
posted by bananafish at 3:27 PM on March 10, 2011

I sustained a medium-serious dog bite when I was 16. This has left me with a certain wariness of too-assertive dogs, which is and was mitigated by my knowledge and comfort with good practices with new dogs. Basically, I'm seconding the advice that you teach him good dog relations and introduce him to new dogs. Obviously, if these are friendly, well-trained dogs, that's even better.
posted by mchorn at 3:29 PM on March 10, 2011

RE: My comment above.

This might help other dog owners who may run into the same situation I did (keeping kids and dogs separate), but the best thing I ever taught my dog was the command "Away!" The difference between "Leave it!" and "Away!" was this - "leave it" meant ignore an object (for example, a piece of food falls from the table - do not touch it). "Away" means physically walking away from something (if the dog is sitting near us at the dinner table hoping for food scraps to appear from heaven, when I say "Away!", the dog has to physically get up and move a few feet away).

Best. Dog. Command. Evah.
posted by HeyAllie at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2011

Some great suggestions here, I suggest you contact your local SPCA (or equivalent) - they often have programs for teaching kids to be safe around dogs (knowledge is power), or can recommend someone who might be able to help.
posted by biscotti at 5:10 PM on March 10, 2011

I was eight when a friend's dog bit me.

She was bragging that her ugly poodle protected her, and I didn't believe it, so, just for fun, I shouted, "Hey, Bobo!" From down the street he looked at me. I raised my hand as if to strike my friend. Bobo tore up the street.

Long story short, he bit me in the ass.

Did it make me hate dogs? Am I afraid of them?

Hell no.

If anything, it made me respect them.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:27 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

At age 4, I was bitten on the face by a dog, and then at 6 I was dragged around a yard by a leash tangled around a wrist and an ankle. The latter was actually the more traumatic experience: I love dogs in general, but I will always and forever dislike boxers. I'm not afraid of them, I just don't care for them, and I think that's okay.

I agree that you can help by creating opportunities for closer interactions with dogs, but I think forcing something, especially too early, will be counterproductive, both to the cause of long-term comfort with dogs and to your son's trust in you. You're on his side, and even more important than his coming to tolerate dogs is that he know his parents are there to protect him. I mean, obviously you know that exposing him to dogs is not failing to protect him, but if he's truly terrified, that's how it will feel to him.

Exposure therapy works to mitigate fear when the subject is willing and in control of the exposure; forced exposure is just re-traumatization.

I notice when I'm walking my very well behaved dog (on a leash) that some parents immediately grab their kids and cross the street in terror. It's bizarre and I imagine a lot of those kids grow up to be afraid of dogs.

Or maybe the child is terrified of dogs, and the parent knows that if they pass too close, the child will be literally shaking and moaning in terror? I know several children with a fear that strong. You don't force "lessons" on fearful children, you create structured opportunities for confronting the fear safely (bringing the child close to a strange dog and owner is not such an opportunity), or you just wait until they grow out of it. It's not "bizarre" to just avoid dogs until your child has a handle on their fear.
posted by palliser at 6:35 PM on March 10, 2011

Please don't take him to the dog park. That will be overwhelming and stressful--not just for you or for your son but for the owners of dogs who don't do well with children and look for the dog park to be a kid-free zone for their dogs to do dog things.

Maybe a store where leashed dogs are welcome would be a better place to get some low key interaction?
posted by Neofelis at 10:30 PM on March 10, 2011

Maybe wait a while before reintroducing him to well behaved dogs, because toddlers can be erratic and confusing to a dog who is used to older kids and adults who act more predictably. The kid's behavior definitely enters into the equation here and he needs to be old enough to understand that he lets the dog approach him first, does not reach a hand over the dog's head like he's going to grab, does not pull tails or fur, etc. I'm not saying your kid does any of these things necessarily but until he's definitely old enough to understand the idea that dogs need him to act a certain way to make everybody happy, he's not old enough to be around unfamiliar dogs.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:39 AM on March 11, 2011

Hey, scrump. Sorry this happened.

My daughter had some intense interactions with a full sized collie. She was good friends with the owner's smaller lovely sheltie when the dog was a puppy and the girl was a baby. Then these friends got the male collie. He was great as a puppy, but when his jaw were big enough to fit her head inside we had a problem. He never bit, but he would nip at her hair, and when a dog is 3X bigger than you as a toddler it is understandably scary.

This led to her being dog-shy for a long time. Visiting the friends with the sheltie and the collie as the collie went through training helped. He stopped the nipping, started behaving better when his owners told him what to do, and started being the pure fun that a dog can be.

I think that teaching your son to be assertive around dogs may also help. If he can be around well-trained dogs who know "down" that may help him with feeling like he has control. We pretty much limited her interaction to dogs we knew well after realizing that the collie had freaked her out about dogs in general. Getting bigger certainly helped her, too.
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:38 AM on March 14, 2011

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